Jennings to pay millions for jailing people for court debts

The City of Jennings, Mo., will pay $4.7 million for jailing some 2,000 mostly poor, black residents for unpaid court debts.  Many of the individuals had been charged with traffic violations.

The agreement with the small municipal in North St. Louis County is part of a class-action lawsuit preliminarily approved by a Missouri federal judge.

The deal with Jennings, if approved, would be the largest settlement with a  U.S. municipal to resolve incarceration practices based on unpaid fines and court costs.

The lawsuit was brought by ArchCity Defenders of St. Louis, which represented eight lead plaintiffs.  Lawyers from the Saint Louis University School of Law and Washington-based Equal Justice Under Law also collaborated.  Attorneys have argued that jailing people who are in poverty and who cannot afford to pay fines and fees is unconstitutional.

 The City of Jennings, population 14,700, is represented by attorney D. Keith Henson.  The settlement also includes another $1 million or more in debt forgiveness for those detained for nonpayment  between the dates of Feb. 8, 20110 and Sept. 16, 2015.  The settlement is still pending final approval. A hearing date is set for Dec. 14 before U.S. District Judge Carol E. Jackson of the Eastern District of Missouri.

The lawsuit was prompted by criticism in the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Critics have argued that cities have been placing a disproportionate amount of costs of their criminal justice system on financially strapped black residents.  Ferguson has already adopted reforms but has not settled its case.  Ferguson is represented by attorney Robert T. Plunkert with Pitzer Snodgrass.  A trial is set for July 2017. 

Ferguson has already adopted reforms such as abolishing the criminal offense of “failure to appear” and fines related to it, capping court revenue at 15 percent of the city budget, withdrawing 10,000 warrants issued before 2015, and eliminating fees to tow vehicles and revoke warrants.

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